View of “Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space,” 2011. Background: Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961–63. In vitrine: Livro da criação (Book of Creation), 1959.

Lygia Pape

Lygia Pape, O Ovo (The Egg), 1967. Performance view, Barra da Tijuca beach, Brazil, 1967. Lygia Pape. Photo: Maurício Cirne.

LYGIA CLARK, HÉLIO OITICICA, AND LYGIA PAPE (1927–2004) are often mentioned in the same breath—all three were key figures in Brazil’s Neo-concrete movement—yet Pape has not received the recognition accorded her two great contemporaries. That should change now that the artist’s first major retrospective outside Brazil, “Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space,” has opened at the Reina Sofía. Curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and Teresa Velázquez in collaboration with the Projeto Lygia Pape in Rio de Janeiro, the show elucidates the full breadth of her remarkable and complex work, presenting drawings, paintings, sculpture, woodcuts, ballets, books, installations, public actions, poetry, and films. It is an important moment in the global reception of Brazilian art.

Among the earliest works are four oils on canvas from 1953, which show Pape mixing the geometric with a vivid organicism and relate broadly to the developing interests of the Concretismo movement. But the following year the work took a more rigorous turn, as she moved on to paintings and reliefs that systematically took apart the language of Constructivism. Seeing all these works together is revelatory. It makes one conscious of Pape’s remarkably subtle or even, paradoxically, invisible use of color, her weapon of choice from the outset. Many of these works consist of square-format standard units positioned in a variety of arrangements. She used bases to set the squares away from the wall, thereby insisting on their status as objects. And the bases are often painted bright orange or yellow, which has the effect of creating a faint aureole of reflected color around the squares. In 1954, this assertion of colored light as a kind of meta–structuring principle was a radical step. While in many ways Pape shared with Oiticica an interest in the dialectic of the chromatic and the schematic, her distinctive treatment of diffuse colored light subtly emanating from beneath hard-edge structures sets her work apart.

The volatile permutations of the basic geometric units in the reliefs lay the ground for the predominantly black-and-white woodcuts that Pape produced from 1955 through 1959. She called these works “Tecelares” (Weavings) and described them in terms of the spatial somersaults they turned: “unfolded, twisted, inverted, ambiguous, ambivalent,” words that also describe the kind of viewing the “Tecelares” make us perform. She was “digging away at black,” she said, and “opening slices of light.” Again, the sheer physicality of her description in effect makes light a material, though here it is manipulated not through color but through texture. Printed on tissue-thin Japanese paper, the woodcuts set in train a play between uneven black ink striations that trace the grain of the wood and the tilting rhythms and movements of various geometric shapes—another kind of directional grain altogether. It is as if a constructive surface has become light- and body-sensitive.

There can be no clearer case against the assumption that the ordering of geometric abstraction is always, at some level, in thrall to the rationalist ideologies of a technocratic modernism. After all, there never was anything rational about Malevich “burning” with Suprematist color, as he so evocatively put it. Even the extreme materialism of some Constructivists, as seems clear in retrospect, set about inventing a new kind of subjectivity that was surely as psychological as it was social and as bodily as it was mechanical and logical. One look at the work of Pape and of the Neo-concrete artists who took so seriously the original proposals of the historical avant-gardes—especially those of Mondrian, Malevich, and the Constructivists—and it is clear that there is nothing indifferent or impersonal about geometricity. They understood. They shared the compulsion to make and remake through repetition. They saw how a simple colored shape could become a complex part of a social field. But they were also, as the Brazilian critic Ronaldo Brito put it in 1975, the first to pose the question of what happens when abstraction refuses to believe in its own mythic autonomy. More than leading to a simple rejection of those formal and spatial elements that had from the beginning provided the building blocks for abstraction, this questioning loosened the grip of all those beliefs—in the absolutes of the mystical or the mechanistic—that seemed to set abstraction apart.

We can sense this, for example, in the fluidity of Pape’s remarkable Ballets neoconcretos (Neo-concrete Ballets) of 1958 and 1959, performances she created in collaboration with poet Reynaldo Jardim, in which human-scale cylinders or rectangles, manipulated by dancers hidden inside, moved across the stage in a play of colored lights. And we can see it in her books. In Pape’s hands, books became prototypes for a different kind of artwork, one that is meant to be handled and entirely responsive to touch. Her pages, at once two- and three-dimensional, are colored geometric figures that fold out and in on themselves in sequence. Every form permeates and is permeated by the world. She took photographs of each page of the famous Livro da criação (Book of Creation), 1959, in various everyday locations—for instance, a red and white folded construction perched on a wooden railing overlooking a sea full of swimmers. Rather than turn in on themselves, geometric elements are turned outward, spreading everywhere, seeping into the least likely places.

One of the most striking sections of the exhibition is devoted to three of Pape’s books: the Book of Creation and the Livro da arquitectura (Book of Architecture), 1959–60, both in big vitrines, and the Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961–63, which is not a book at all in the literal sense but a large work made up of 365 small units, one for each day of the year, arrayed on a very large wall. At the center they are arranged as a grid, but they disperse as they move outward. Each is a small geometric relief in two colors. One or two appear from a distance like tiny Malevich crosses, until you come closer and see the way very small square or triangular blocks have been excised and then mounted on top in relief. They could be abstract logos left over from the modernist past or heraldic messages to the future.

View of “Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space,” 2011. Background: Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961–63. In vitrine: Livro da criação (Book of Creation), 1959.

Around 1967, when the military dictatorships had been in power for three years, Pape’s abstraction seems to have undergone a moment of utter abjection. The grid was still a format of containment, but now the container was a box for cockroaches coated in resin or for ants devouring raw meat. It is not only in considering the Brazilians’ vaunted emphasis on audience participation but in such details that an aesthetic of collective convulsion can be apprehended in this exhibition. Looking at Pape’s well-known Roda dos prazeres (Wheel of Pleasures), 1968, it is hard to imagine a work of greater ambivalence. It consists of bowls of colored liquid that the audience can taste with little pipettes. At the museum, the pleasures are laid out in a circle on the ground as a wheel of sensual involvements—an invitation to discover the taste of color. And yet, in a scratchy Super 8 film shown on a monitor beside it, there is Pape eating color with a kind of melancholy disgust. The red that dribbles down her chin can’t but connote blood and vampiricism. Pape’s action was part of the event called “Apocalypopothesis” organized by Oiticica on Flamengo beach in Rio in 1968; also included in “Apocalypopotheis” was a version of Pape’s performance Trio do Embato Malveo, in which three people slowly emerged through the walls of paper- or plastic-covered cubes on the beach. In a documentary film of Pape’s 1967 O Ovo (The Egg), we see the artist herself “hatching” from a white cube, simultaneously evoking both birth and destruction. These works propose something new, but not in the old utopian sense. Here, a white cube articulated not pure form but pure contingency and ambivalence.

Given the sheer momentum of the artist’s practice in the ’50s and ’60s, so impressively conveyed at the Reina Sofía, it’s something of a surprise when the exhibition abruptly shifts its focus to film halfway through. From the mid-’60s through the late ’70s, Pape did devote considerable energies to the moving image; her cinematic works are diverse and numerous, and it’s to the curators’ credit that they have given this aspect of her work its most thorough presentation to date. But the films threaten to eclipse the later objects and installations, making it look as if Pape’s artistic and formal project faltered and fell apart pretty much entirely in the wake of the Neo-concrete group’s 1963 dissolution. While social actions like Divisor, 1968 (a mobile sheet of white canvas in which dozens of people stick their heads through numerous slits), are well documented here, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pape gave up object-based work entirely after this period. This is not to say that the films aren’t interesting in their own right, particularly in the friction they create with Pape’s works in other mediums. For example, in 1975’s Eat Me, which consists of a series of close-ups of men’s and women’s mouths, the rhythmic in-and-out of the tongues seems to be repeating the in-and-out folding of the geometric elements in the Book of Time reliefs. What might be thought of as a strictly formal work is lent a visceral charge, and the unnerving corporeality and sexuality of the film are lent a “formal” rigor.

It is with the great “Ttéias” sculptures that the show returns us to the core of Pape’s practice. The first of these was made in 1976, but she continued to produce them until almost the end of her life, and they represent the complex playing-out of her longest-standing concerns. The jaw-dropping gold Ttéia Quadrada 1C, 1976–2002/2011, which marks the show’s grand finale, was memorably exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2009. In the Arsenale, it seemed entirely of its moment—as fresh as anything there—with its great square shafts of gold thread falling in dynamic diagonals in a dark, cavernous space. It does not disappoint here, nor could it fail to satisfy the contemporary appetite for large and spectacular museum displays. But its roots are in work that is far more modest and slight (as we are reminded by a smaller 2000 “Ttéia” in silver thread, in daylight against a window, which is as evanescent and spare as the gold one is dramatic). It is the square “ray” of light—once again, light as material and as structure—that twists the grandiose biennial aesthetic and connects the work firmly to its origins. The formal logic of Pape’s early work has been amplified, not abandoned. It is the particular qualities of Pape’s geometric abstraction—its vitality, its “social membrane,” to use Guy Brett’s memorable phrase, its function as “color semaphore,” to again quote Malevich—that makes her work so keenly resonant now and that continues to raise urgent questions about art’s collective and social ethos.

“Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space” is on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía through October 3; travels to the Serpentine Gallery, London, Dec. 7, 2011–Feb. 19, 2012; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, March 17–May 13, 2012.

Briony Fer is a professor of the history of art at University College London.